William Cameron Menzie’s film Things to Come is an adaptation of a novel by HG Wells. Produced in 1936, this science fiction film explores England’s dystopic future that comes as a result of a devastating war, which is significant in the way that it accurately predicts World War II. England first experiences a regression to the dark ages, which is followed by a period defined by obsession with progressions of technology. Authoritarian leaders are in power during each of these eras.
Ironically, England’s regression comes as a result of too much progress, as advancements in weaponry cause mass destruction on a wide scale and medical advancements lead to the spread of a virus by the enemy which kills half of the world’s population. This could be an exaggerated representation of the state of Germany after World War I. The progress-obsessed regime which follows holds advancements in technology above human lives. This is best exemplified in the scene which the attack by John Cabel’s followers leaves the “boss” of the old regime dead. Cabel implies that one dead man means nothing in comparison to the new world of progress that will rise. This disregard for human life is similar to that of Hitler, who believed in killing off whole races for the sake of progress. While Hitler’s views were obviously much more extreme than those of Cabel, they both hold progress above individual lives.
Overall, the film warns against taking progress too far, as both severely flawed regimes come as a result of obsessions with it.
The military technology reflects in Things to Come reflects that of World War I, only occasionally showing new developments in the context of a World War I-style conflict. H.G. Wells reflected pre-war conceptions of how the next war would occur, showing masses of troops crossing trenches into no-man’s land, tanks massed and charging across rough terrain, as well as gas attacks. It is interesting to note that Wells’ pre-war conceptions versus how the war actually occurred are similar to how pre-World War I writers envisioned the Great War; both were able to determine the technology that would make a difference on the battlefield, but both failed to realize how it would be used and how much of an impact these technologies had.
Wells does get one key thing right however, and that is the use of leftover military equipment. Most “futuristic” war movies show the latest and greatest in terms of equipment and guns, but Wells shows the true reality of going to war- the reissue of old equipment in order to sustain such a massive army. Soldiers are shown equipped with the old rifles leftover from World War I and are seemingly absent of any submachine guns or squad operated weapons (i.e. the Bren Gun). Also, instead of single, fixed wing aircraft, the British are shown using biplanes, which they did in fact use in World War II. However, in reality a biplane would not keep up with the newer combat fighters that were developed in the 1930s.
Things to Come is a 1936 movie adaptation of the book, written by H.G. Wells. This movie continues Wells’ tradition of using powerful science-fiction stories to critique politics. Things to Come focuses on the possibility of war, and the devastating effect it will have for the next century, on England and the world.
There is one powerful scene that can be used as metaphor for the 20th Century till, and beyond, 1936. During the early stages of the war, an enemy pilot who is gassing the country is shot down, and then is promptly attended to by the protagonist, John Cabal. They bemoan the necessity for battling each other, and the enemy eventually dies of gas poisoning, after giving away his gas mask to a young girl whose family he might have killed. This scene exemplifies the rapid rise of the modern state in the 20th century. The state had so much power and influence that they could send ordinary men into battle without their consent and desire. After the carnage of the First World War, the power of the state continued to increase as it controlled economic aims for revival. The movie reflects this increasing power, as years into the future the only widely available goods are weapons, rather than consumer goods.
What do years of war bring? What do years of peace bring? William Cameron Menzies’s film, Things to Come, based on a novel by H.G. Wells, shows these two extremes in a dystopian future. After extended war, the human race reverts back to barbarism and no longer know how to fly planes. After extended peacetime, humans make too much progress, and the object of life is not progress, it is living. Either way, too much regression or too much progression will cause humans to lose sight of what it means to live.
In Everytown, during the long war, they cannot fly planes because they have no oil or gasoline. If we are not careful about our resources and finding alternatives to fossil fuel, this could become reality in the twenty-first century. In this way, the film is warning us of the dangers of mass destruction and mass war. On the other hand, the film warns that two much progress can take away from life and actually make us less human. So what is the message that one is supposed to take away from the film? Everything in moderation? War is bad, but so is scientific and technological progress?
Ironically, both in the time of war and in the time of peace, authoritarian leaders rose to power. There was the barbaric “Chief”, and there was the forward-looking Oswald Cabal. These leaders also have similar mindsets. The chief wants to conquer the hill people, while Cabal wants to conquer the moon, then the universe. Is this a comment on the nature of rulers, regardless of outside influences? What is the film attempting to get across to its audience?
Things to Come is a seminal science fiction film released in 1936 that depicts a future of apocalyptic warfare that causes a zombifying plague called “the Wandering Sickness,” ultimately reducing Europe to its primordial stages of civilizational development. Throughout the film, science and “progress” in general are polarizing topics amongst all levels of society from the common people to the highest governmental officials. Some view scientists as “the last trustees of civilization,” while other characters embody the apprehension towards scientific research has been represented in countless other films and writings of the interwar period such as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Russell’s “Icarus, or, the Future of Science.” The film concludes in the year 2036 with a space launch, ultimately made to represent man’s incessant need to ascend to “conquest beyond conquest.”
The thing that I found most interesting about this film was also the factor that differentiates it from the works above that discuss a fear of science: Things to Come does not definitively extol or denounce scientific progress. Rather, it documents the existence and relative validity of each side of this argument. In the midst of the centuries of warfare that grip Europe, science is consistently viewed as both the cause of society’s woes and the only thing that can solve them. The high-tech planes that allowed warring nations to drop mustard gas caused immense destruction, and yet the inhabitants of Everytown still believe that the only way to truly end the war is to repair those planes and finish obliterating their enemies. In the film, new civilizations are created only by the destruction of their predecessors. Because scientific “progress” is the only means of accomplishing this, Things to Come simultaneously depicts science as the best and worst tool for societal development. However, war, plague, science, and every other major element in this development is a slave to the attitude of “manifest destiny” that is portrayed as intrinsic to the human psyche.
Do you think that the constant quest for petrol in Everytown is merely a plot device, or do you think that H.G. Wells was using this fixation to predict that oil would become the center of future armed conflicts?